Our human rights culture has now become a tyranny
The Supreme Court this week effectively made the Jewish religion illegal, argues Charles Moore.
This Government has exalted secular human rights over all belief systems
Strange things happen in the English law, but I have seldom read a stranger opening to a judgment than the following, handed down this week by Lord Philips of Worth Matravers, the President of the Supreme Court.
"The seventh chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy records the following instructions given by Moses to the people of Israel, after delivering the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai," Lord Philips began. Then he plunged into how God, having smitten the enemies of Israel – Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – in a manner highly satisfactory to the Jews, now demanded that His people observe proper marriage customs in return.
The answer is that sacred text of modern times, the Race Relations Act of 1976. The Jewish Free School (JFS), a very successful secondary school in Brent, is run along Orthodox Jewish lines. A dispute arose about the admission of a boy known as M. M's mother became Jewish by conversion, but only after giving birth to M. According to Orthodox rules (see that chapter of Deuteronomy), Jewishness passes through the female line. M, therefore, was not Jewish, and so did not have the right of admission to the JFS.
The Supreme Court, however, decided by a majority of five to four that the decision to exclude M was in contravention of section one of the Race Relations Act. He was excluded on racial grounds, it held.
This is a rather big decision. Lord Rodger, one of the dissenting judges, said that it "leads to such extraordinary results, and produces such manifest discrimination against Jewish schools in comparison with other faith schools, that one cannot help feeling that something has gone wrong".
Actually, it goes wider than that. The court is effectively saying that a religion's way of defining its own membership, practised over 3,500 years, is illegal. This is an acute problem for Jews, who are at great pains to maintain their own rules while respecting the law of the land. It will also be used by anti-Jewish groups, which are growing in strength, to bolster their argument that Judaism is racist and that the state of Israel is the equivalent of apartheid South Africa. So the Race Relations Act, set up to help minorities, ends up punishing them.
I would argue that the judgment goes wider still. It is part of a current idea of equality and of human rights which, in the name of freedom, is beginning to look like tyranny.
When you set out general principles about equal treatment for all, regardless of race, religion, sex, age etc, people will tend to agree with them. It is a liberal principle that all are equal before the law, and a Christian principle that all are equal in the sight of God.
But when you frame endless laws according to these universal principles, you run into difficulties. It may be "discriminatory" for a Jewish/Catholic/Muslim school to prefer to employ Jewish/Catholic/Muslim teachers, but isn't it also reasonable? Isn't it fair and natural that a religious school should be free to prefer to admit children from the relevant faith, in order to maintain the ethos which is so important to its success as a school? By what morality are such things wrong?
The human rights culture which now dominates our law believes in its own morality. It sets itself above the varied experience of civilisation, and above the idea of independent nations. It decides that rights can be codified for everyone and can be applied everywhere. It is not a coincidence that our highest court has just changed its name from the House of Lords to the Supreme Court: it considers itself supreme indeed. This "human-rights" morality is much more coercive than it purports to be.
One controversial example is homosexuality. All the main faiths put heterosexual married love above homosexual acts, yet our human rights culture makes it illegal to do this. Catholic agencies are forbidden to handle children for adoption unless they will bestow them on gay couples as readily as married ones.
Another example relates to terrorism. Common sense would suggest that a nation which decides that a foreigner is trying to foment violence in this country should be free to expel him. But universal human rights, as now interpreted, forbid this if the suspect might be tortured in his home country.
A third relates to charity. Until 2006, it had been accepted from time immemorial that the advancement of religion or education was a charitable purpose. Under the Charities Act of 2006, however, this assumption was removed. All charities now have to prove that they serve a "public benefit", and the Charity Commission decides what that benefit is, according to criteria which it calls "modern". These are hard to understand, but they appear to involve social engineering. Woe betide the charity which provides fee-paying education.
Even a self-described "hairy Lefty" has noticed that something is amiss. In his interview with this paper a week ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said: "The trouble with a lot of government initiatives about faith is that they assume it is a problem." There is now a strong secularist agenda working its way through our public authorities. There is a even a group of militant secularists, preposterously called "Brights", who want to drive religion out of the public sphere. Already you can see it in rows about a nurse who prays with a patient, or about sex education, or even about what to call Christmas. Government ministers flatter individual religious leaders – indeed, many Jews feel that the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, who was given a peerage by Gordon Brown, has become too much of a No 10 favourite to defend his community properly. But it is this Government which has exalted secular human rights over all belief systems, and made laws to enforce them. And Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, has led a culture war against faith schools, especially Jewish ones, for their policy on admissions.
I am not pretending that these questions are easy. You need, for example, to resist Islamist attempts to advance the cause of sharia as a way of creating a parallel legal order (oppressive of women) in this country. But if you really do see religion as the problem in society, you are pulling out the threads which have until now held our culture together. You are undermining the largest single motive for providing schooling, nursing, child care and help for the old and poor. You are turning this country into a colder place, where it is "always winter, but never Christmas".
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